Hussein defiant

war looms

Conflict all but certain after Iraqi leader rejects U.S. order to go into exile

Bush `comfortable' with attack

Preparations accelerate

Blair wins Commons vote

Deadline For Hussein

March 19, 2003|By David L. Greene and Tom Bowman | David L. Greene and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - War with Iraq became all but certain yesterday when Saddam Hussein defiantly rejected President Bush's ultimatum to go into exile or face a U.S.-led invasion.

Bush has given Hussein a deadline of 8 p.m. today to leave the country, along with his two sons. The Iraqi leader's quick rejection of the ultimatum meant that war could begin tonight or even earlier.

Hussein's regime issued a statement that Iraq "doesn't choose its leaders by decree from Washington, London or Tel Aviv."

Mocking Bush's warning, Hussein's elder son, Uday, said, "The proposal should be that Bush leaves office in America, he and his family."

White House officials said the president held out little hope that the crisis could be resolved peacefully.

"Saddam Hussein has led Iraq to many mistakes in the past," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman. "If he doesn't leave the country, he will make his final mistake."

Reviewing war plans with his military advisers, Bush seemed ready to order the attack. It will likely start with an assault on military targets throughout Iraq, with Tomahawk missiles launched from Navy ships and submarines in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

U.S. troops who were camped in Kuwait, as well as sailors on naval vessels, braced for orders to launch the offensive.

Hussein chaired a meeting with his high command, after which his regime declared that he would not leave the country.

Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Al-Douri, charged that "this is the first time in history a president of a state ordered another president of another state to leave his own country."

"It is unacceptable by any logic, unless we have to accept the law of the jungle: Might is right, which violates all principles enshrined in the charter of the United Nations," he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge braced Americans for possible retaliatory strikes from terrorists once war begins. He announced a plan called "Operation Liberty Shield," under which security will be tightened at borders and at airports, seaports, railways and nuclear and chemical plants.

Precautions will also be taken to protect the nation's food supply and distribution. In addition, Ridge said, governors are being asked to deploy National Guard troops or state police.

Ridge is scheduled to meet with Bush today in the Oval Office, along with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York City.

Iraq's capital was in a state of high anxiety as residents rushed to stock up on supplies. Pentagon officials said there were indications that some top Iraqi officials were selling off assets or moving currency outside Iraq in preparations to flee.

U.S. officials said Iraq's six elite Republican Guard divisions have begun to disperse from their barracks, which are clustered in the center of the country, to avoid making themselves a single concentrated target for U.S. bombs.

For the first time since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Hussein appeared on television in a military uniform. Iraq's al-Shabab television, owned by one of Hussein's sons, reported that "the march of struggle will continue against the American, English and Zionist aggressors."

The Arab League, meanwhile, canceled a last-ditch peacekeeping trip it had planned to Baghdad. And United Nations weapons inspectors abruptly ended their four-month duty in Iraq and left the country.

White House officials described the president as "comfortable" with his decision to take the nation to the cusp of a war that could well determine the course of his presidency.

Meetings and calls

Bush spent yesterday in meetings with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other advisers, as well as on the phone with foreign leaders. He was trying to amass more support for a war and also to shore up relations with several key U.S. allies that remain staunchly opposed to military action now.

Bush spoke with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, which had threatened to veto a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the United Nations authorizing force against Iraq. U.S. officials withdrew the resolution Monday once it became clear that it would not pass.

According to Fleischer, Bush and Putin "openly acknowledged that they don't see eye-to-eye" on Iraq. In a show of irritation with the United States, Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, scrapped a scheduled vote yesterday on a treaty to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles that Bush and Putin had agreed on last spring.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally on Iraq, delivered an impassioned speech urging support for war. The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of Blair's policy of using "all means necessary" to disarm Hussein. But many legislators in Blair's own Labor Party revolted against his stance.

Only Britain and Australia have pledged combat troops for an invasion. But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that a broad coalition of 30 countries - from Britain to such small nations as Nicaragua and Eritrea - would back the United States in other ways.

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